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  • The Challenge of Ethnic ConflictIndia-The Dilemmas of Diversity
  • Robert L. Hardgrave Jr. (bio)

India came to independence in 1947 amidst the trauma of partition. The nationalist movement, led by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, aimed to gather what was then British India plus the 562 princely states under British paramountcy into a secular and democratic state. But Mohammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League, feared that his coreligionists, who made up almost a quarter of the subcontinent's population, would find themselves a permanent and embattled minority in a Hindu-dominated land. For Jinnah, India was "two nations," Hindu and Muslim, and he was determined that Muslims should secure protection in an Islamic state of Pakistan, made up of the Muslim-majority areas of India. In the violence that accompanied partition, some half a million people were killed, while upwards of 11 million Hindus and Muslims crossed the newly created borders as refugees. But even all this bloodshed and suffering did not settle matters, for the creation of Pakistan left nearly half of the subcontinent's Muslims in India.

Muslims today are India's largest religious minority, accounting for 11 percent of the total population. Among other religious groups, the Sikhs, some of whom in 1947 had sought an independent Sikhistan, are concentrated in the northern state of Punjab and number less than 2 percent of India's population. Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Parsees, and Jews add further richness to India's religious diversity, but their comparatively small numbers only accentuate the overwhelming proportion of Hindus, with some 83 percent of the population.

The Hindus, although they share a common religious tradition, are [End Page 54] themselves divided into a myriad of sects and are socially segmented by thousands of castes and subcastes, hierarchically ranked according to tradition and regionally organized. The geographic regions of India are linguistically and culturally distinct. There are more than a dozen major languages, grouped into those of Dravidian South India and Indo-European (or Aryan) North India; Hindi, an Indo-European language spoken by 30 percent of all Indians, is recognized by the Constitution of 1950 as the official language (along with English). In addition to the many Indo-European and Dravidian languages and dialects, there are various tribal languages spoken by peoples across India, most notably in southern Bihar and in the seven states of the Northeast.

In confronting this staggering diversity, the framers of India's Constitution sought to shape an overarching Indian identity even as they acknowledged the reality of pluralism by guaranteeing fundamental rights, in some cases through specific provisions for the protection of minorities. These include freedom of religion (Articles 25-28); the right of any section of citizens to use and conserve their "distinct language, script or culture" (Article 29); and the right of "all minorities, whether based on religion or language," to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice (Article 30). With respect to caste, the Constitution declared the practice of "untouchability" unlawful (Article 17). To provide compensatory justice and open up opportunity, a certain percentage of admissions to colleges and universities and places in government employment were "reserved" for so-called Scheduled Castes (untouchables) and Scheduled (aboriginal) Tribes (Article 335). Similarly, to ensure adequate political representation, Scheduled Castes and Tribes were allotted reserved seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, and in state legislatures in proportion to their numbers (Article 330). These reservations were to have ended in 1960, but they have been extended by constitutional amendment at ten-year intervals.

Federalism and the Party System

Despite enormous pressures, India has been remarkably successful in accommodating cultural diversity and managing ethnic conflict through democratic institutions. This success has in large part been the product of that diversity itself, for at the national level—what Indians call "the center"—no single ethnic group can dominate. Each of the 25 states in India's federal system reflects a dominant ethnolinguistic group, but these groups are in turn divided by caste, sect, religion, and a host of socioeconomic cleavages. Federalism provides a venue, however flawed, for expressions of cultural distinctiveness, but it also serves to compartmentalize friction. The cultural conflicts of one...


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pp. 54-68
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